02/05/2010 12:00AM

McKee looking for career revival over winter


At 28, John McKee seems far too young to have already peaked. When he burst onto the racing scene by breaking records at River Downs in 2002 and drawing comparisons to Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day because of his small frame, the sky seemed the limit.

By 2004, McKee was the leading rider at Oaklawn Park. In 2006, he was riding Lawyer Ron to consecutive victories in the Risen Star, Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes, and Arkansas Derby. But in the years since, McKee's profile has seemed to diminish steadily, so he is hoping a productive winter at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., will help him rejuvenate a stalling career.

Into Friday night action, McKee was atop the Turfway standings with 23 wins at the winter-spring meet, which started Jan. 1.

"So far so good," said McKee, who stands 4-foot-10 and weighs 104. "I would never want to say anything bad about Turfway, but it is going through a tough time right now, business-wise. I would've loved to be at Oaklawn right now, but honestly, my business just wasn't good enough to justify leaving home."

McKee is a glass-half-full kind of guy who has a wife and stepson at home in Louisville, Ky., "where at least I can sleep in my own bed every night and enjoy time with my family. There's a good and bad part to most everything, I guess."

While his mounts won more than 200 races and earned more than $6 million in both 2003 and 2004, McKee had career lows last year, when he won 67 races for mount earnings of just less than $1.5 million. Winning races at Turfway this winter is helping to restore his confidence and to maintain his faith in himself as a rider.

"The horsemen here have stuck behind me," he said. "I hope this can kick-start me and I can sustain Kentucky year-round. I'd love to use this meet to help me out for Keeneland and Churchill Downs. Maybe this is the year I make my move."

Noon first post Sunday

The Sunday program at Turfway starts earlier than usual, at noon Eastern, to allow fans plenty of time to get where they are going to watch the Super Bowl. The richest race on the nine-race card is the seventh, a $24,900 allowance that pits seven fillies and mares at a mile on Polytrack.

Irish Ridge, with Orlando Mojica riding, looks like the logical favorite exiting the My Charmer Stakes, while Blissful Song and Rose of Killarney also should contend.

Turfway will continue its three-day schedule (Friday to Sunday) through Feb. 28, with an extra day also scheduled for Monday, Feb. 15, because of the Presidents Day holiday. The track then goes to a four-day schedule, with Thursdays added, through the end of the meet, March 28. The $500,000 Lane's End Stakes is set for March 27.

Derby Future Wager on deck

The first of three pools in the 2010 Kentucky Derby Future Wager gets under way next Friday at noon Eastern at tracks and wagering outlets throughout North America. This will be the first time since Churchill inaugurated the parimutuel futures in 1999 that there will be just three days of wagering into each pool instead of four. Wagering closes Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern.

There will be $2 win and exacta wagering into all pools. Pool 2 in 2009 was the first time Churchill offered exactas.

Pool 2 is scheduled for March 5-7 and March 26-28. One Kentucky Oaks futures pool will coincide with Derby Pool 2.

New Derby food event

Churchill has announced a new event for Kentucky Derby week called "Taste of Derby," set for April 29, the Thursday night before the big race. The event will be held at the Mellwood Center and will feature high-end cuisine and entertainment, with tickets going for $250 and a VIP package for $350. Already confirmed for Taste of Derby are chefs from such renowned restaurants as Tribeca Grill in Manhattan, Michy's in Miami, and Commander's Palace in New Orleans.

More information is available at tickets.churchilldowns.com.

* The weekly "Down the Stretch" radio program was scheduled to begin its 2010 season Saturday on 790 AM in Louisville. Hosted by Don Knobel, "Down the Stretch" is a one-hour show featuring interviews and handicapping with horsemen and racing personalities from across the United States every Saturday at 10 a.m. Eastern.